The roses are, at last, quieted and defeated, and the rogue demi-fae queen is dealt with at last. That which had corrupted them to other purpose has also been defeated, but not the who. He, he that corrupted them remains, but there, we have a plan too.
I had been concerned, for some time, about the roses that have, for a long time, been a part of the defence of the village. I had been receiving reports of aggressive behaviour towards the villages. Some, perhaps could be the result of mistaken intent. Communications with them is not a precise art or science, and it was entirely possible that the villagers’ normal activities could be misconstrued as an attack. However, some of the incidents have been more worrying, implying a darker motive.
I decided to investigate further and went out to the castle grounds to commune with them, to see if I could determine what it was that was affecting their behaviour. I must confess I was not in the best of moods and demanded “What the hells is going on with you lot?” At least, that was how I framed it in words. I had to frame it in simpler concepts through the link, visualising the attacks, and framing it as a query.
The answer was not entirely clear. Their thought processes are so foreign to our own and so it is not always easy to understand each other. Through the mess of inchoate images I got the impression of barbs, more than the normal thorns of the roses, bitter, nasty things with a taste of the thornwyrms. The mind of my Mystroses were being drowned by the corrupted mind of the Wyldroses, and somewhere, the tinkling tones of the rogue demi-fae queen, bending them to her own purposes.
The thornwyrms worried me the most, as they had the flavour of Gwythyr about them. My anger rose somewhat, but I quashed it, shaped it and used it. I fed some of my blood to the roses in my grasp, imbuing it with some of my magic, the magic of life, or anti-life, and fire – “take it”, I told them, “this is my blood, take it and use it to burn them” – I visualised them partaking of my magic, through my blood, and burning the wyrms. To my surprise, they seemed to understand the concept, and those within reach swarmed around me, taking of the blood, and, it seemed to me taking the fight to the wyrms. I let them feed as much as was safe to give them, and then hardened my skin until I could disengage.
It was shortly after that, that a wisp arrived from Lord Mornoth. Perhaps, somehow, my efforts had reached him. He was sure that Desirie, and possibly the former king, were somehow controlling the roses. That much accorded with my impressions I had received from the roses. He asked if I could spare forces for the battle to retrieve the demi-fae queen. Dyisi was tasked with guarding the unborn child, but he needed my help, and my relationship with the Cait, to get the forces to where they were needed. We agreed I would muster some of my forces in the Shadow Roads, ready to go to wherever we were needed, and to maintain an escape route if needed. He and Aoibheann would find their way to the centre of the Weald, where they suspected Desirie was hidden, and then I would join them when needed.
I directed Kustav , as the strongest of the three brothers, and the one most experienced with conditions in the Shadow Roads, to come with me, and bring the strongest of the vampires. The other brothers I left in charge of defending the village and directing the reserve force if needed.
I took my forces to the Roads and waited, feeling for Aoibheann’s pattern so that I could open the rift near to her as quickly as possible. I directed the Cait to stand by to keep the rift open as an escape route, or to close if it became a threat. And, should we need to retreat, to assist the escapees as best they could.
I waited, and soon, through the wisp, came the call. I concentrated on my memories of Aoibheann’s pattern and parted the veil, sending a blast of icy cold air through to the much warmer climes of the Weald, causing a temporary swirl of mist.
The scene before me was nightmarish. This was not the Weald as I knew it, from my brief visits there. Snow choked a meadow around a sink hole from which the roses poured and writhed. I could feel their thirst for blood even without opening my mind to them. Mornoth arrived with Aoibheann, and, for some inexplicable reason, Mikachu, who immediately jumped on the shoulders of one of my men and started shouting encouragement.
I directed my men to hold the perimeter and to hold the escape route free. The plan seemed to be that Mornoth would use his Hand of Power to pull the demi-fae out of her hiding place. Aoibheann would be fighting the thornwyrms by means of her own powers. I offered my own abilities with the roses, which was gratefully accepted.
With a few cries of encouragement, possibly spurred by mint imperials given to her by my guards, from Mikachu, battle was joined. With swords and scythes, my men started to expand the perimeter, giving Mornoth room to work. As we beat back the tide of possibly rabid roses, he summoned up the raw power of the Wyld – easily done here in the centre of the Weald – causing the very ground to shudder. Even with my limited knowledge of the fae magic, I could recognise his use of the Hand of Power, very likely Earth power, from the taste of it.
The sight, and taste of the thornwyrms, spurred me to anger, which fuelled my efforts to burn the wyrms. My blood magic, normally attuned to life, I inverted and sent out as death, death and fire, blasting the blood and sap that flowed in the roses, and even more, I focussed the death it could cause on the wyrms. “Burn, you fuckers,” I cried, “burn and die.” My beloved wife has definitely had an effect on my vocabulary. Whatever the words, the effects were what I desired, as the roses fell back, withering and curling up in the smoke of the fires I rained down on them.
Beside us, Aoibheann surged with her own mastery of the Wyld energies. I could feel her senses weaving in and out of the roses, seeking out the wyrms, wrapping light around the darkness of the wyrms, drowning and burning them in the light. She laughed as she did so, occasionally, bursting into some unknowable song as she sought out the wyrms, to destroy them. Never had she seemed so alien to me. She is no longer the uncertain, slightly crazy girl I had known. Now I truly saw her as the Mother of Trees, wielding the Wyld energy as one born to it.
The battle became even more nightmarish – my fire and blood, Aoibheann’s dazzling light and Mornoth’s Hand of Power, together bending and twisting the fabric of reality, the very ether boiling with the energy of the Wyld, raw and untamed, only barely controlled by our efforts. For a few moments, it felt as if we would be overwhelmed, but, slowly, the tide seemed to turn in our favour.
The very ground heaved and boiled, spewing upwards and crushing the flood of roses under the earth and rocks and eventually disgorged the centre of all the chaos, the mother of all the roses, the Sithen Rose. A multitude of thorns festooned the central bulk, each bearing an impaled demi-fae. And the centre itself, a horrific merger of rose and our lamented demi-fae queen, Desirie, embedded in, and somehow, part of the Sithen Rose itself. Wyld magic seethed around us – that which Mornoth wielded, and that which Desirie was trying to control, driving the throngs of thornwyrms.
The roses fell by the wayside as Mornoth pressed his advantage, getting closer and closer to the impaled demi-fae queen. As the roses fell, it became increasingly apparent there was another influence at work here, an influence I knew only too well. The cold, bitter and cruel influence of Gwythyr, somehow corrupting Desirie’s quest for revenge into something darker, a quest to conquer the realm and to claim the unborn child. The taint of Gwythyr spurred us to greater effort. Aoibheann’s light burrowing and forking like prehensile lightning, blasting the thorns with the pure light. My blood magic burning the roses that assaulted us, and those few that yet lived falling to the swords of my men. Finally, Mornoth reached the centre and reached down, grasping the tiny fae queen and pulling her free as the thorns that impaled her crumbled to ashes.
That which Mornoth held was a pale shadow of the jewelled creature she had been, all pallid skin and dimmed eyes and almost drained of vitality. “Please kill me,” she pleaded of Mornoth, “Release me from him… before he takes our child.”
Mornoth was silent a moment, and then bowed his head. “As you wish,” he said, quietly. I could sense that this was not what he had intended for her, but, at the end, it was the best he could do for her, and the child. The energies around him shifted, changing hue to something more soothing. Green light flowed from his hand into the tiny creature until seemed full of light, becoming more and more transparent until nothing was left but a tiny sparkling mote of light, and then even that winked out.
It was over.
Mornoth knelt silently among the wreckage. Around us, such roses as had not been burned lay placid and harmless. The thornwyrms that had infested them were reduced to dust on the wind. Aoibheann fell, dizzied by the power she had been wielding, singing something about a thousand shiny stars. For a moment, she sounded as though she had some business of her own with the remains of Desirie – “there lies the woman who set fire to my children,” she said, but made no other move, watching as the tiny queen evaporated into light. All that seemed left, then, was her concern for the trees, and she stumbled off, intent on healing what she could. Mornoth looked as though me might go after her, but remained, clutching at his chest as if in pain. He too, needed time to rest and recuperate. He thanked us for our help, and then he was gone. Only the ferret, Mikachu, seemed unaffected, apparently delighted by the pretty lights and the mints my men had given her, as she gambolled off into the distance.
For myself, I ached from the effort of wielding the powers of my blood and the fire, and yet, felt strangely invigorated by my proximity to the heart of the Weald, the Wellspring of the Wyld energies. As I stood again, I realised that the Wyld had affected my appearance, bringing my horns and wings into full splendour. It did not matter here, and most of my men had seen it before. I chuckled and willed them back out of sight. My men seemed to have other concerns anyway. Many of them were clutching at their chests and looking at me with confusion. As well they might. I did not need to exercise my magic to tell what had happened. They too were experiencing the shock that I had experienced so long ago now, when Isabella’s life-giver magic had inadvertently restarted my heart. Perhaps their shock was greater. It had been a scant dozen years since Katarina had stopped mine, whereas some of them had not known a heartbeat in a century or more. “Do not worry,” I assured them. “You’ll get used to it. Enjoy it while you can and come and see me if you have any questions.” They nodded and managed to smile through their bewilderment. Most, by now, knew something of what had happened to me; how I came to be a vampire with a beating heart. “Look at it this way,” I said. “We just won a battle, and we deserve a celebration. And, for the first time in many a year for most of you, that celebration can include wine and beer and…” I paused for dramatic effect, “… bacon sandwiches!” They looked at me with even more shocked expressions, and then smiles and laughter broke through, shattering the tension. “Baaaaaaacon!” many of them cried with glee. “Come on,” I said, making my way back towards the rift, “Hal’s going to be working overtime tonight. And I’m buying.” We formed up, walking in easy camaraderie as I led them back through the Shadow Roads to home. “I’ll see you in the tavern shortly,” I told them as I ushered the last one through.
I went back from the rift to Valene’s cave to see Bronwyn, but found her sleeping. I needed none of my powers to tell that she slept restlessly and uneasily, perhaps still haunted by the dreams that were not her own. I knelt and kissed her gently, just enough for that to enter her dreams, but not enough to wake her and I sent soothing thoughts through the link. “Sleep well, my darling,” I muttered. She quieted then and settled further into the bundle of furs and blankets, the faintest ghost of a smile now on her face. I got up and left, thanking the Cait for their hospitality and their care and headed back to Mysthaven. I would celebrate with my men tonight, but, for me, the battle was not yet won. I still had one final reckoning with Gwythyr. Only when that was done, and my daughter finally safe, could I truly relax. “May that day come soon,” I murmured, addressing whatever powers might be listening. I took a deep breath and pushed open the tavern door, composing my face into a smile. “What ho, lads! Drinks are on me! And the bacon sandwiches.” Yes, a time of reckoning was due, but for now my men needed me.